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Dodgers have too many `ifs' to look like a top NL West threat. Even once-dominant pitching in question now

I can't remember where I first heard this, but the more you listen to baseball managers in the spring, the more you realize why America is called the Land of Promise! For example, when Tommy Lasorda tells you that the Los Angeles Dodgers have a great chance to win the National League West this season, it's usually a good idea to take something off the top. Of course Lasorda has been right before: five times to be exact. But this year, with a questionable pitching staff, a bullpen that has yet to prove itself, a defense that was the worst in the NL in '86, and the mystery that is Pedro Guerrero, it's difficult to imagine anyone's picking this club ahead of Houston or Cincinnati.

In the past 10 years, L.A. has usually been able to stay in contention because of superiority on the mound. This is mainly a memory now, however, as shown by the fact that last season the Dodgers trailed the Mets, Astros, Giants, and Cardinals in pitching effectiveness.

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Fernando Valenzuela, runner-up to Houston's Mike Scott in the 1986 Cy Young balloting won 21 games, highest in the National League. But Orel Hershiser skidded from 19 to 14,and Bob Welch from 14 to 7. Even though Rick Honeycutt (11-9) won two more games than he had in 1985, he didn't finish one of his 28 starts.

Overall, the Dodgers got only 25 saves from a bullpen crew that would have been better off working from bomb-proof shelters. That was 26 fewer saves than Houston, which finished 23 games ahead of L.A. in the NL West.

According to general manager Al Campanis, injuries did more to unravel the Dodgers last year than the opposition, although L.A. lost a combined 42 games to San Diego, Houston, Cincinnati, and San Francisco. It also lost 38 games by one run.

Guerrero, who sustained a serious knee injury on his last day in spring training camp a year ago, played in only 31 games all season and never looked right physically in any of them. Also sidelined for long periods because of injuries were infielders Mariano Duncan and Bill Madlock, outfielders Mike Marshall and Ken Landreaux, catcher Mike Scioscia, and relief pitcher Tom Niedenfuer. Overall, 14 players made the disabled list.

The way Campanis sees it, the 1986 Dodgers were a fifth-place club in name only - shredded by injuries and never really able to get it all together.

One of the Dodgers' biggest problems is that the club is married to Guerrero - his power bat; his me-first attitude; his liabilities in the field; and his enormous salary. Pedro is currently in left field and Franklin Stubbs (a much better outfielder) at first base because the Dodgers don't think Guerrero's body can handle the bending and stretching required at the latter position. But don't expect them to say this out loud.

That leaves right field for Mike Marshall and center field for Ken Landreaux. Marshall, who drove in 95 runs in 1985, was down to 53 last season because (he says) of a bad back, which has since cleared up. Landreaux, who has always had problems coming in on fly balls that don't carry much, produced 29 RBIs last season.

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While that low figure failed to spur the Dodgers to sign free-agent center fielder and National League batting champion Tim Raines, it may yet result in rookie outfielder Jos'e Gonzalez getting Landreaux's starting job or in promoting a last-minute trade.

Steve Sax, who had 210 hits last season, will lead off and play second base. Bill Madlock, so restricted now in the field that his future lies as a designated hitter in the American League, will start the season at third base. What happens to Madlock after that more or less depends on the Dodgers' patience, or how reserve infielder Jeff Hamilton hits as Bill's late-inning replacement.

While Mike Scioscia is an excellent catcher defensively, the Dodgers have not been satisfied with his RBI totals. What they would like from Mike is 70. What they are probably going to have to live with is somewhere between 50 and 60.

Lasorda, who hasn't had an outstanding late-inning left-handed relief pitcher since Steve Howe got involved with drugs, may have his best chance yet for success with newcomer Matt Young.

If Young, acquired during the off-season from Seattle, where he won eight games and saved 13, can carry the burden of being No. 1 without breaking under the pressure, L.A. will be much more believable as a contender. Backing him up will be Niedenfuer and Ken Howell, who are big enough and strong enough, but but may come up a bit short in the savvy and finesse departments.

Once the regular season slides into May, and Lasorda begins looking for a fifth starter, it could be any one of four candidates: Jerry Reuss, Tim Leary (over from Milwaukee), Alejandro Pena, or Brian Holton. Leary, who was 12-12 with the Brewers, is the early favorite, although a 100 percent Pena probably has better stuff. Royce, the only left-hander in the group, may still be needed in the bullpen.

Overall, it's hard to ignore the fact that the Dodgers have more lingering questions than quick answers. For openers, there's that worst-in-the-league defense. Obviously they didn't have the bats to offset this deficiency last season, finishing 10th in runs scored. And as noted above, four rivals even beat them at their own old game on the mound.

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